If these aren’t the typical subjects for a boardroom on the Avenue Hoche in Paris, Pinault isn’t your typical business mogul. A down-to-earth sort with a ready smile and bright blue eyes, he long ago traded his “big Aston Martin” for a Lexus hybrid—and has chastised his chauffeur for leaving the engine running in his company car. Pinault sorts and recycles all his garbage at home, and pays a fee to Action Carbone to offset the pollution created every time he takes a plane, private or commercial. Like all PPR employees, he prints on both sides of recycled paper, turns off lights when he leaves his office and uses videoconferencing to reduce his number of flights. Pinault allows that only a fraction of consumers today might make purchasing decisions based on the environment and the social behavior of a product’s maker. But he’s betting that very soon more and more people will decide what to buy—or what not to buy—because of such criteria.
“He’s working with the only brand in luxury fashion that’s not using leather and fur, so that’s already an environmentally responsible act,” notes McCartney, referencing her company, a joint venture with Gucci Group. “I think François is ahead of the curve,” agrees Tomas Maier, creative director of Bottega Veneta, who uses vegetable dyes, shuns fur and carefully researches exotic skins to make sure they are procured ethically. “In the face of a disposable culture, we are philosophically committed to making products that last. François knows that social and environmental change is essential and…he has committed PPR for the long haul.”
Thus far, however, the fashion industry—which depends upon conspicuous consumption—has a poor track record. John Elkington, an author and a founder of the consultancy SustainAbility, says fashion operates on such tight production schedules that issues such as fast delivery, quality and price often “completely override ecological and wider social considerations.” He applauds companies like PPR that embrace CSR—either because of moral conviction or in an attempt to stand out from the crowd—but says, “It will be interesting to see whether they stick with their principles when the economic slump really gets a grip.”
Jem Bendell, lead author of the World Wildlife Fund report “Deeper Luxury,” laments that luxury brands in particular are “not doing enough to provide consumers with socially and environmentally elite products and services. Many companies are increasing their efforts, but there is a long way to go.”
Pinault credits the women in his life with instilling in him a sense of environmental and social responsibility, starting with his stepmother, Maryvonne, whom he describes as “like Stella a generation earlier.” Growing up in Brittany in northwestern France, famous for gusty winds and rugged beaches, Pinault says he was her guinea pig for all manner of organic foods. “I tasted everything,” he says, his face flushing pink above a mint green shirt worn open at the neck. He describes his ex-wife, Dorothée, mother of his first two children, as a “militant” for animal causes. (She once worked for the WWF.) “If neither she nor I have dogs in Paris, it’s because she doesn’t think dogs belong in a city,” he says.